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Canaries in the Electoral Coal Mine

If you're looking to get an early understanding of which party might control the House of Representatives on election night, put a canary in the coal mine.

Miners don't use canaries underground any more. But more than a century ago, canaries were a fixture in the mining industry. Before modern ventilation systems, a caged canary was a piece of standard equipment for miners. Just like a pick axe. Canaries are particularly susceptible to carbon monoxide and methane gas. Miners would carry a canary with them as they descended into the coal shafts. They knew they were safe as long as the canary sang. But if the canary ceased chirping, miners would check to see if the bird died. Toxic fumes kill canaries quickly. And if gasses knocked off the canary, miners knew they had to get out of there fast.

Come the evening of November 2nd, canaries will roost in the electoral coal mine, too.

With the voting all but complete, these canaries can't really warn Congressional candidates about the impending danger. But on election night, these canaries can serve as sentinels for those trying to understand who might have control of the House in the closest midterm elections since the mid-1990s.

Will the Republicans pick up 60 seats? Barely 39 seats? How about Democrats holding on by a thread? Or even more? These are the questions people want to know the answers to. And here is a partial list of canary races spread across the eastern U.S. that could serve as signposts on election night.

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The expression says "as Maine goes, so goes the nation." However, the first beacon to gauge where the House may go is actually next door in New Hampshire. Two competitive New Hampshire contests could won't necessarily indicate whether Republicans will win the House. But they could hint at whether the GOP is developing a 50 to 60 seat wave.

The Cook Political Report lists the contest between Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) and Republican nominee Frank Guinta as a toss-up. But a recent poll compiled by WMUR-TV and the University of New Hampshire showed Guinta running with a ten-point lead. That's a stark contrast to a similar WMUR/UNH poll in July that featured Shea-Porter ahead by five points. Many Republicans view Shea-Porter as too "liberal." And this was the weakest New England district for President Obama in 2008.

Cook also describes the western part of New Hampshire as toss-up territory. In 2006, Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH) defeated longtime Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) here. Hodes is now running to succeed Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), who's retiring. That gives Bass a shot at returning to Congress against Democratic nominee Ann McLane Kuster. Kuster's outraised Bass and the seat is more Democratic than the Shea-Porter district. But Bass's name-recognition gives him a boost in the polls, although the race tightened throughout the year.

Because of the first-in-the-nation presidential primaries, New Hampshire voters are historically well-versed on the issues and the candidates. And they'll be especially dialed-in with the state's Senate and gubernatorial contest.

Here's the takeaway: If Republicans win both of New Hampshire's seats, the GOP has the POTENTIAL for an electoral tidal wave. How do you break a big wave? With rocks and shoals. New Hampshire's nickname is "The Granite State." Democrats hope New Hampshire is just that for them. They could start breaking a possible Republican surge early in the evening by winning one or both of New Hampshire's House seats.

The next canaries in the coal mine are in Massachusetts. The Bay State boasts three House seats with bellwether potential. Two are obvious. One is not.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) is retiring after representing Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket for 14 years. The Cook Political Report characterizes this district as a "lean Democrat." Republican Jeff Perry faces Democrat Bill Keating in what is expected to be the GOP's best shot here in 40 years.

The upset election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) last winter caught the attention of political handicappers. And Perry is trying to duplicate Brown's feat by coaxing independent voters to cast their ballots for him.

A Perry victory could amplify the potential for a wave. But not as much as Republican upsets in two other Massachusetts districts.

The GOP is having a field day this fall rattling the cage of House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA). Frank is facing his most-competitive race in years against former Marine and Republican nominee San Bielat. Bielat raised significant cash in recent weeks. But Frank has amassed a healthy war chest during his nearly 30 years in Congress. Brown won this district in January. The experts doubt that Bielat can pry Frank loose this cycle. But if he does, Katy bar the door. In the 1994 onslaught, Republicans knocked off three committee chairs, plus the sitting Speaker of the House. Few, if any saw it coming.

This year, Republicans are targeting Frank, Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO), Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-SC) and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV). Unseating committee chairs is always a hallmark of wave elections. And another canary in the coal mine indicator could be the Fourth Congressional District of Massachusetts if Republicans take out the Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

There's one more canary in the Massachusetts coal mine. It's the seat held by 14-year veteran Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA). McGovern won re-election in 2008 with 98 percent of the vote. And few give Republican challenger Marty Lamb much of a chance. This race is on no one's radar. And it probably won't be on election night. But it might be worth checking in on. The "Scott Brown" effect remains in full-force across Massachusetts and no candidate takes anything for granted.

If the GOP picks up a seat like this, the canaries could be chirping about a catastrophic night for Democrats. Remember, no one saw Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) defeating former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) until days before the 2008 election.

Most canaries are found as we move west to New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.

Democrats made big gains in these states in 2006 and 2008. Which is why the GOP is poised to make inroads this year. In fact, Republicans have as many as five to six Democrats in their crosshairs in both of Pennsylvania and Ohio. It could be a Republican night if the GOP begins piling up wins in these states. But if Democrats hold the fort, they stand a good chance of minimizing their losses and living to fight for control of the House in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and even Hawaii.

In New York, Democrats face tough contests throughout the heart of the Empire State. But there are two "canary" races to watch for.

Let's start on the eastern tip of Long Island. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) faces Republican Randy Altschuler. Bishop cruised to re-election two years ago. But President Obama only carried the district by four percentage points. Altschuler has shown he can raise money and toward the end of the summer, had as much cash on hand as Bishop.

Democrats need to hold this seat to break a wave.

Also in New York, pay attention to the contest between Rep. Michael McMahon (D-NY) and Republican Michael Grimm. McMahon's represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. Staten Island is the most "Republican" borough in New York City. In fact, Republicans owned this seat for nearly three decades until McMahon pried it loose two years ago. Even though McMahon cruised to victory in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) topped Mr. Obama in the presidential race here. Much like the Frank seat in Massachusetts, it would be surprising if McMahon didn't hold the seat. But again, a Grimm upset spells grim news for Democrats on the national map.

Like New York, there are multiple races to track in Pennsylvania. Rep. Chris Carney (D-PA) faces a climb against Republican Tom Marino in the northeast portion of the state. Freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA) is struggling against Republican Mike Kelly in northwestern Pennsylvania. In 2006, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) unseated then-Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) by a fraction of a percentage point. Murphy won easily two years ago. But Fitzpatrick is back and the race is a nail-biter.

But the true canary for the Keystone State is the rematch between Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) and Republican Lou Barletta. Kanjorski squeaked by Barletta two years ago. And this is the third time the two have faced each other since 2002. Kanjorski has a healthy fundraising advantage over Barletta.

It's always tough for junior lawmakers like Carney, Murphy and Dahlkemper to hang on in challenging electoral climates like this one. But the toxic fumes will have long infiltrated the mine and killed the canary if Republicans defeat a 26-year Congressional veteran like Kanjorski next month.

Moving south, Virginia evolved from a red state to a purple state in the last presidential election. In fact, before President Obama's victory there, the last Democrat to carry the Commonwealth was President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Mr. Obama's win helped sweep three Democratic freshmen into office: Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Glenn Nye (D-VA) and the aforementioned Tom Perriello (D-VA). Everyone knew that Nye and Perriello faced uphill climbs this year. Many considered Perriello the most-imperiled Democrat of the cycle. He only won his seat by a mere 727 votes. But for political canaries, look to the Connolly seat just outside Washington, DC and a seat held by longtime Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), in the extreme, southwestern corner of the state.

First elected in 1982, Boucher faces Republican Morgan Griffith. Boucher is running his most-aggressive campaign in years. And Boucher's coffers are much deeper than Griffith's. But this is Virginia coal country. And Boucher voted for the so-called "cap-and-trade" bill. Many voters may hold that against Boucher even though he secured protections for the coal industry. If the race hinges on the mining industry's view of Boucher, perhaps it's only appropriate to consider the seat a political canary.

There's no mining anywhere close to the district Connolly represents in northern Virginia. His district is one of the most wealthy in the nation and serves as a bedroom community to the nation's capital. Connolly flipped it from Republican to Democratic in 2008 when he pocketed 55 percent of the vote against Republican Keith Fimian. He faces Fimian again and Republicans would love to take it back. But it's a challenge. And worth noting on election night for a GOP upset.

Finally, trek west to Ohio where Republicans are mounting muscular challenges to Reps. Steve Driehaus (D-OH), Mary Jo Kilroy (D-OH), John Boccieri (D-OH), Zack Space (D-OH) and Betty Sutton (D-OH). All are either in their first or second terms and considered vulnerable.

But the race that's just off the chart is the contest between Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-OH) and Republican Bill Johnson. Wilson coasted to victories in 2006 and 2008, securing 62 percent of the vote each time. But again, McCain captured the district in the 2008 presidential race. Plus, Republicans have long viewed the rural, eastern Ohio region as GOP territory. Republicans are expected to pick up several of the "big five" races listed above. And the klaxons aren't sounding for Wilson's seat yet. But if they do, you'll know they're just a very high-tech version of a canary in a coal mine.

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There are dozens of other Congressional contests on the board this fall. This is just a snapshot of some of the key eastern races which could give political soothsayers early indication as to which party might control the House on election night.

Certainly Democrats will unearth expired canaries on November 2nd. That's a given. But the question is whether they know where all of those sentinel canaries are now? If they don't, then noxious fumes are already seeping into the political mine. And if that's the case, it's getting late to do much about it. Canary or not.

• FOX's Carl Cameron contributed to this report.

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